The search for the suspect in a 2002 Pilot Point murder widened to millions of eyes after the story was aired on a CNN prime-time crime show hosted by famed fugitive hunter John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted.”
Family members hope the new exposure will bring Lori Mejia’s killer to justice and provide closure for a still open wound.
“It really put a strain on my family,” said Mejia’s uncle, Syl Flores, who raised her like a daughter. “I’m very, very hopeful and I pray that justice is done.”
Herbert Maldonado, a Mexican national, was named in an arrest warrant in connection with Mejia’s murder on Nov. 23, 2002. He slipped out of police custody in Plano the day after the murder and is believed to have boarded a bus for Mexico.
The CNN program, “The Hunt with John Walsh,” featured the story in an episode that aired the past two weekends. Producers interviewed Mejia’s family and friends, as well as detective Larry Kish of the Denton County Sheriff’s Office and former Texas Ranger Tracee Murphree. The interviews revealed detailed information about the case.
For producer Sarah Johansen, it was Lori Mejia herself that made the story so compelling. Mejia was born with a life-threatening health condition that required periodic surgeries her entire life to replace her esophagus. Mejia graduated from Pilot Point High School in 1995 and lived in Denton at the time of her death.
“Here was this girl who was born with health issues so serious that her doctors predicted she wouldn’t live past five years — but she did. She fought and survived against all the odds,” Johansen said in an email.
“For Lori to have gone through what she went through as a young child, and then to be brutally killed at 29 by a random stranger under those circumstances made it a story impossible to ignore.”
Northeast police Chief James Edland was a sergeant at the Pilot Point Police Department at the time of the murder. He responded to the crime scene at a car maintenance garage on Foundation Drive.
“I remember getting called out to the scene, being briefed, and that’s when I said we need to get a ranger out here,” Edland said. “It was pretty violent.”
Mejia was found strangled to death after being stabbed multiple times. She had been attending a party at the location and left with Maldonado, who was known as “Vampire” – a name he acquired because of his two missing front teeth.
In an interview on the show, Murphree said the garage owner, identified only as Mario, told police Maldonado returned to the party covered in blood and said, “I killed her.”
Police immediately put out a warrant for Maldonado, who was arrested on a DWI charge by Plano police at 2:06 a.m. the day after the murder. Maldonado gave police a false name, and by the time investigators realized who he was, he had already bonded out of jail.
Flores said police interviewed Maldonado’s brother, who said Maldonado came to his house immediately after the murder.
“He went to his brother’s house, said the devil made him do it, changed his bloody clothes, then they got picked up for DWI, and in six hours he was out and his brother took him to the Greyhound station,” Flores said.
That’s when the trail went cold. Police speculate Maldonado fled to Mexico, and the lack of a resolution began taking its toll on the family members.
Lori’s mother, Aida, fell into ailing health and would often drive Mejia’s car to her gravesite. She died in 2007.
“She would sit right there in the cemetery on the side of the car listening to that CD Lori had in there when she died and cry,” Flores said. “She died crying for Lori.
“The whole family changed.”
Flores lived in Pilot Point at the time of the murder and was well-known in the community. He was a professor at the University of North Texas and operated an advocacy center for the poor. But when he was offered a job at Northern Kentucky University, he had to leave his old life behind.
“My family would no longer visit me because Lori was killed in Pilot Point a little over a mile away from my home,” Flores said. “It was too traumatic.
“I didn’t even leave right. I could have sold my houses, made money on it. I just walked away. I really felt I was close to dying myself.”
Flores now lives in Ohio and is the president of a non-profit corporation called A Future Without Poverty, Inc.
After Mejia’s murder, Flores promised Aida that he would catch Maldonado. Last year, he took what he thought was a long shot and called “The Hunt” tip line asking for help.
“I thought, ‘They’ve got thousands of people asking for help,’ and I was shocked when I got an email from them,”’ Flores said. “So we go through this elimination process and we made it to the finals.”
Shawn Cuddy, an executive producer at Zero Point Zero Production, the company that produces “The Hunt,” said the Mejia murder story had all the elements needed to make it a perfect candidate for the show.
“[Researchers] look at what the story is, what’s known, what isn’t known,” Cuddy said. “They try to determine if we have the cooperation of the local PD or law enforcement that may have been involved in the investigation. We also seek to have, ideally, contact with family members or friends of the victims.”
Producers usually find stories through law enforcement sources and wanted lists, but in this case it was Flores who put “The Hunt” on the trail. After pitching the story to CNN, the network came back with a request for more access to family and friends. Producers again turned to Flores.
“Mr. Flores was very key in this instance. His passion, his commitment and his desire to get the story seen and aired and hope to get someone on the case was a really compelling part of the story for us,” Cuddy said.
The staff at Zero Point Zero work directly with U.S. marshals when receiving tips called or emailed into the show. The show has generated tips about the Mejia case, but none have yet to produce leads, Cuddy said.
Aggie Mejia, Lori’s sister, still lives in Denton and said the CNN story has already helped with the healing process.
“Just talking with [Johansen, the show’s producer] in the first interview, it really gave me a big sense of, I guess, relief off my shoulders knowing that they were wanting to put her story out there,” Aggie said. “It made me feel a lot better.”
Among the information uncovered by “The Hunt” was the reason Mejia left the party with Maldonado. Kish and Murphree were quoted as saying that Mario had negotiated with Mejia to work as a prostitute for clients at the party. The price was $100.
“Lori deserves the same justice as anybody else, as a homicide victim would deserve,” Kish told “The Hunt.”
“We focused on finding this Hispanic male named Vampire, with no teeth, that had just brutally killed a lady.”
Mejia had fallen into a lifestyle of partying and drugs after becoming infatuated with a man named Malford Minter, who the show depicts as having a negative influence on the hometown girl and who kept many different girlfriends at the same time.
“I had this feeling when I first met him that this guy was no good. And then Lori kind of drifted away from me and from us,” Flores said. “I thought she was madly in love and now it’s time she was flying away from her family to be with her boyfriend.
“I blame myself for not picking this up.”
Police first learned the identity of the suspected killer from a friend of Mario’s, who said that Maldonado was living in Pilot Point with his 84-year-old girlfriend.
“To have an 84-year-old girlfriend was shocking in and of itself,” Murphree told “The Hunt.” “She talked to us about how Maldonado had beat her and in the same breath she would tell us that she loved him.”
The girlfriend provided photos of Maldonado, and a woman who was at the party gave the license plate of the car he drove, which is how police found he had been locked up in Plano under a false name, Kish says in the show. Kish contacted the Plano jail less than an hour after Maldonado bonded out by his brother, who lived in Tioga. The brother drove Maldonado to the Greyhound bus station in Dallas; he hasn’t been seen since.
Herbert Maldonado is described as a 44-year-old Hispanic male with a large mole on the left side of his face near his nose. He is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. His front teeth are missing, and other teeth protrude. He has worked on farms in the past and may be working a similar job in the North Texas area or Mexico.
Anyone with information can call “The Hunt” at 1-866-THE-HUNT or in Mexico at 01-800-099-0546.